February 2013 Archives

02/15/2013

The Silence of the Clams

Walleye painting by Timothy Knepp

I have just spent over a month in Michigan. Ann Arbor is a great town and has a dazzling array of restaurants, but I found myself avoiding seafood. How fresh can a clam be in Michigan? OK, I’m spoiled. I can go down to the shore here at SeaCat’sRest and dig clams so fresh they don’t have time to scream before I drop them into boiling water. I had to work in the scream thing because I came up with this great title, but in reality I’m just fishing for a reason to use it.

Michigan has great freshwater fish: whitefish, smoked chub, lake trout and my favorite, walleye. But there’s the mercury¬† problem. Michigan’s fish advisory tells us:

from: www.michigan.gov/documents/FishAdvisory03_67354_7.pdf

Wow! Scary! The mercury is atmospheric, emitted mostly by coal burning power plants and concentrated in the fat of fish over time. Asia is the biggest polluter by far. Every step in the food chain concentrates the mercury approximately ten times. This is called biomagnification. Therefore a plant eating fish (or mammal) has much less mercury because it doesn’t eat the fat of other animals in which the mercury is concentrated. Mercury is one toxin among many, but it is the most important. Others include PCBs and Dioxins.

Human health risks from methylmercury exposure have been widely documented, and include neurological effects, impaired fetal and infant growth, and possible contributions to cardiovascular disease.

www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/…/pdf/sources_to_seafood_report.pdf

So what about fish from salt water? Doesn’t marine fish from Maine’s coastal waters also have unhealthy levels of mercury? Yes and no. True, older, bigger fish like bluefish, swordfish or shark, or fish which spend part of their lives in fresh water like striped bass should not be eaten by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also, the toxin-concentrating part of the Maine Lobster, the tomalley or liver ( the part Julia Child loved to make a sauce out of) should be avoided. But the State of Maine also says, “All other ocean fish and shellfish, including canned fish and shellfish: Pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant and children under 8 years of age can eat no more than 2 meals per week.” That’s pretty liberal compared to the Michigan guidelines. The diluting effect of the vast ocean and the active tidal currents help to spread the toxins out so that Maine coastal seafood is not faced with the toxin uncertainty of freshwater ecosystems. The thing about saltwater fish is that the mercury levels are pretty unvarying. For example, the mercury level of .3 parts per billion is an average for a given species throughout the world’s oceans. If a given species had that level in Lake Michigan it might have twice that in one of Michigan’s interior lakes or rivers. This is because the local environment’s acid levels could be higher, putting more atmospheric mercury into solution.¬† So the warnings for Michigan’s fish must reflect this by assuming the worst case. Even more restrictive are the government warnings about Maine’s freshwater fish. No fish should be eaten by pregnant women or children under 8 except landlocked salmon or brook trout, one meal per month.

The take away from this brief review of the mercury problem in fish is to 1) observe the consumption guidelines for the fish in question, 2) Make sure the fish comes from a larger body of water and 3) eat young or small fish, and remove the fatty parts. Maine has a low level of mercury inputs, but most mercury comes from the atmosphere anyway. With our strong tidal currents, Maine’s coastal waters have no “hot spots” like an acidic Adirondack lake or industrial harbor. There’s still too much mercury for a perfect world, but as we move away from coal and other fossil fuels, the future looks brighter. As for clams, mercury is not the problem, pollution or red tide (paralytic shellfish poison) is what you call the hotline for: 1-800-232-4733 or 207-624-7727.

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02/26/2013

Maine High School Grad Rates Up Again

Bangor Daily News announced the results of the Maine Department of Education’s measurement of the 2012 state graduation rate. For the third year in a row that rate has increased, and is now at 85.34% This puts Maine in the top quarter of the US graduation rates. Comparisons to other states are difficult because it seems every website uses tabulation that has a different result, and then there’s the year to year differences. Even more difficult is attributing the causes of this happy statistic. No child left behind? The Maine Laptop program? Small classes? The great recession? Whatever the result, it looks like Maine educators deserve credit, so thank a Maine teacher today. And I don’t think we can attribute our gains to easier graduation requirements!

from http://www.americashealthrankings.org/all/graduation (slightly different data)

Although it’s dangerous to use anecdotal information to explain a trend, nearby Deer Isle-Stonington High School certainly is doing something right, and may offer clues. The school district contains Maine’s biggest lobster catch area, so local kids may not necessarily be college-bound, but the rates have soared from 58% in 2009 to 94% in 2012. The new principal Todd West has outlined what he believes to be behind the meteoric rise. It all comes down to individual attention. Availability of staff and aggressive monitoring of student achievement on a monthly basis are the specific steps Principal West has taken.

At the bottom of the pack are schools in urban districts, where kids are more likely to be in poor circumstances. Only 75% of kids receiving free or reduced lunch costs graduate, compared to 93% of the non-subsidized. There are also gender differences (males, 83%; females 87%). We noticed this problem when our daughter applied to colleges. In efforts to counter the paucity of boys, colleges admitted them with lower scores, much to our dismay.

Our governor is not helping to graduate more kids. He has taken steps to de-fund teacher retirement and has flatlined school funding. But let’s look at the bright side, Maine schools are improving and just maybe they will survive until the next governor.

 

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